Drinking Women Of London

Drunkenness was a huge problem in Victorian London, especially amongst the poor as it was about the only way in which they could hope to forget the nightmare of the harshness of their everyday living conditions.

It was often portrayed as being a particularly prevalent problem amongst women, and the fact that virtually all of Jack the Ripper’s victims had had their lives all but destroyed by alcoholism is a sad and tragic testament to this.

The Victorian newspapers frequently published articles that exposed the pitfalls and evils of drink.

And, it wasn’t just the British newspapers that reported on the effects that drink and alcoholism were having on the lives of the people of London. Indeed, American newspapers were curious about the way in which drunkness had been allowed to become a feature of everyday life in London.

On Sunday, May 31st, 1896, the following article, written by Sterling Heilig, appeared The Philadelphia Inquirer:-


“Undoubtedly the women of England are good hard drinkers throughout, but it is among the lower middle classes of London that you must look for the habit in its full perfection.

Last year 9450 women were taken into custody on the one charge of “drunk and disorderly.”

Magistrates’ clerks, missionaries and others, whose daily duty obliges them to frequent the metropolitan police courts, say that the trouble is increasing.


Mr. Wynne Baxter, the well-known Coroner, has just been testifying on the subject.

“Generally speaking, the question of drunkenness enters into half the inquests I hold. My usual question is, ‘Was the deceased worse for drink?’, and the reply, given in an unconcerned tone, is:- ‘Oh, she had a drop,’ as if it were the proper thing to do.

I believe there are countless numbers of hardworking men who would have good homes if they only had good wives; but the women are never at home to meet them or have anything ready for them after their day’s work. The husband goes quietly to bed, while his wife is still out of doors drinking with her friends.

Monday is essentially a day for drinking with the women.

Many men are unaware that their wives take their husband’s Sunday clothes on Monday morning to the pawn shop, pledge them and then spend the money in drink through the week.

On Saturday, when the man brings home his money, the clothes are taken out again.”

A photograph of Coroner Baxter.
Coroner Wynne Edwin Baxter


The charge sheets at most London police courts are always heaviest on Mondays, the proportion of women being ludicrously large.

It is common to see thirty women charged at a single court in one day.

At each metropolitan police court, the Church of England Temperance Society maintains a missionary, whose duties concern the reclamation of women addicted to drink.


In one of its annual reports, the London Police Court Mission, as the organization is called, states that at the North London Police Court in twelve months, 345 women were Charged with simple drunkenness and 447 more with being drunk and disorderly.

Of 2554 women appearing at Clerkenwell (a much ‘poorer district) 95 per cent were the victims of drink.


One of the missionaries said:- “One woman, aged 89 and twelve over 80 years of age were charged with drunkenness. The youngest drunken case was that of a girl 15 years of age. There have been as many as five girls in one day charged with being drunk who were only 17 years of age. In one day forty-seven women have passed the bar charged with drunkenness.”

“I have been dealing with a large number of drunken women in my district,” says another missionary. “One class is composed of low women, but there are many of what may be called the lower order of working people.

We often have the wives of respectable mechanics and of men employed in the city.

It is easiest to handle the younger women, of whom we have a number from seventeen to twenty years of age.

I think drinking is increasing among young married women from eighteen to twenty-four, some of them having very good husbands.

We have a number of young girls, one girl of fifteen was found one morning in the street, senseless. She had been drinking with organ-grinders. The mother was in court and was terribly put about.”

Women standing in the dock at court.
Charged At The Court.


“As to dealing with these girls and women, the London magistrates are puzzled what to do.

They say there is no use sending them to prison or reformatory homes, because it only hardens them.

One magistrate will impose a fine of half a crown for the first offence, whilst another, sitting on the same bench, will let the girl go with a caution.

Circumstances alter cases, and, on the second offence, the fine may be made five shillings.

A woman who has been arrested several times may be imprisoned for several days, and the more incorrigible she becomes the severer is the punishment, until the maximum of one month is reached.”


It is here that the record-breakers come in, astonishing females of the type of the unapproachable Jane Cakebread, the pets of the reporters and the joy of the reading public.

Jane Cakebread, an old, old woman, has passed her 800th sentence for drunkenness.

And the others, remarkable as they are, can but follow her afar off.

One woman, Annie B—, has upwards of 400 convictions against her, but as her husband, a small landlord, has paid nearly $1000 in the shape of fines on her behalf, she must have been taken to the police court, more than 600 times.

Several women have spent nearly the whole of their lives going in and coming out of prison.

Margaret M— was first arrested at the age of sixteen; when the last magistrate last saw her she was fifty-one.

Annie R— has never been a month out of jail since she was fifteen, and she was sixty-three when she made the remark.

Margaret S— had only one week’s liberty during twelve months, though all her sentences were short ones!

Bridget M— appeared no fewer than thirty-six times before the same bench of Magistrates in two years, and one police court has seen Annie P— eighty-four times!

Half the cases at Westminster Police Court are drunken women.

One woman said that she had been at a bar two hours drinking, and that when her money was gone someone else “stood her a drink.” She blamed her trouble on that particular drink.

Another woman said that she went into a public house after she had drunk in several others, and when she got there she found a drunken woman buying drinks for loafers. She remonstrated with this woman, on which the loafers threw her into the street and she was arrested.

A sketch showing a drunken woman.
She’s Had Enough.


Here is another case.

Four girls, the oldest of whom is 16, go into a public house and are served with ale.

From there they adjourn to the street, and in turn buy three small bottles of rum, which they consume in the open air.

After that, they go to another public house and have two drinks of rum apiece!

Then they take the air again and another small bottle of rum, and ten minutes afterwards they are found helplessly intoxicated in the middle of the road.


“Dancing clubs” are responsible for much of the drinking among young girls.

“Some time ago,” says a missionary, “I was stationed at a mission at Clerkenwell, in the centre of these dens, where children – supposed to be over 16, but really only 14 years of age – by paying the sum of two pence can spend the evening in an underground room and everyone can be supplied with liquor.

When they came from this heated room to the street you can imagine the effect of the change of air on them.”

He adds “Will not the law step in and prevent the sale of intoxicants to these children in the dancing clubs?”

The answer is – No, the British law is so tender of the personal liberty of the subject that nothing will be changed and everything will continue to go on as in the past.


At the northern end of Holloway Road, there is a lively highway branching to the fight, with eight large and thriving taverns within the space of a short quarter of a mile.

We thought that we would go in and out of them to see the sights.

It was not slumming. The neighbourhood is respectable, even “desirable” in the language of the house agents.

It was 9 o’clock in the evening when we called for the first lemon-squash and got a glass of “four-ale.” They were too busy to mix drinks.

In our compartment, there were nine women, or fifteen if you count two baby-girls in arms and four little misses brought by their mammas.

One was being treated. The mother, quite a decent body with a silk mantle and kid gloves, called for a half-quartern of Irish warm, and, swallowing three parts of it, handed the glass to the child with a “Here you are, Martha,” as though it were so much water.

A group of women drinking.
A Cosy Compartment.


Three women were talking about their husbands. “That’s all he brought me home, as I’m a living woman! fourteen bob and five of us to keep! Oh, lor’! oh, dear!

Well, drink up. I’ll be fourpence to your tuppence this time, Mrs. Walters.”


A saloon is a “pub,” so-called because it is not public. Instead of a long room with a long bar, the space is cut up into compartments, resembling stalls in a stable. Where the trough would be is the bar.

The beer is pumped from various kegs under the bar, as wanted, by means of a system of levers, resembling the brakes of a locomotive engine. By means of continually pulling on these, barmaids get a good muscle, and a reliable thirst.


The bar-maids all drink; and this is what one of them said, because we were a cheerful, cosy family party, all complaining of bad luck:-

“My father began life as a draper, and made a little money.

Then he took a little public house, and unfortunately lost it through the cup.

When I was 14, I went to take a situation in a public house. I have been in the trade for six or seven years.

I began to drink because I was so tired in the morning. I felt the need of spirits before breakfast. The hours were late, and I had to get up early. We were allowed to have anything to drink at our lunch and dinner time, and sometimes in the evening before going to bed. As a rule, brandy is what we begin on.

I never knew a barmaid who did not drink it.”

A sketch showing two men fighting in front of a barmaid.
A Pub Fight.


The talk turned to the subject of women frequenting the bars.

It was agreed that they had as much right to do so as men.

The presence of the barmaids makes it cosy and homelike for the women drinkers. None of them are new women. Their language is proper and their views are conservative. It is the business of a woman to be a wife, and it is the business of a husband to bring home money on Saturday night.

The pub is their exchange where they meet to compare takings and air their grievances. It is not a place of debauch. It is an adjunct to the home.

It was quite a domestic circle. Some were sitting down and some were standing up.

There were only four men of’ us, and the ladies tongues waxed eloquent. Some lubricated with four-ale, some with Scotch cold or Irish warm, and some with gin.


The theme was the villainy of husbands. “He comes home bowsy every night, and I’m left without a brown to buy a bloater! I’m that worrit that my ‘art I sinks and the spasm is that bad I ‘ave to take a drop of something. Heaven knows I’ve been a true wife, to him, and he beat me last night for popping his Sunday trousers!”

There is not enough money to go round. The husband drinks up too much of his pay. The wife drinks up too much of the remainder. There is a struggle between them, each blaming the other.


Scarcity of money leads to the system of “clubbing.” By this plan of “chipping in” sociably together in the house of one of them, women are able to keep the drinks going through the week till Saturday night again. They will meet together morning and afternoons. When one is out of money another will have it. When one has pawned her shawl another will pawn the tubs.

The woman who introduces this system is capable in a short time of corrupting a whole neighbourhood, and once it is in operation there is no escape for a poor, respectable woman. Her neighbours persecute her if she does not join them. They annoy her, worry her and boycott her. They set their children to beat her children. They serenade her and throw dirt in her doorway. They make life miserable for her until she joins the company.

A woman at the counter in a grocery store.
Buying Drink In The Grocery Store.


We went in and out of three others of these pubs of the Holloway Road district and saw enough to come to the belief that the drinking habits of the London poor are pretty much of a muchness, as far as the fair sex concerned.

It is not debauchery, but simple soaking.”